There is one moment in STEVE JOBS: THE MAN IN THE MACHINE that sums up the documentary and the man. It’s when an engineer who worked on the Mac in the 1980s reads the obituary he wrote of Jobs and begins to weep. This after revealing that his three years at Apple cost him his marriage and his kids. How to reconcile this reaction? Filmmaker Alex Gibney is smart enough not to try. Much has been written and filmed about the life and legacy of Steve Jobs. From the now legendary shortchanging of best friend and Apple co-founder, Steve Wozniak, early in their careers, to the bullying of a reporter who wrote a piece on an iPhone prototype that had been left behind in a beer garden by an Apple employee who had partying just a little too hard that night. Gibney, knowing this, has taken a different tack. Those stories are there, along with Jobs’ issues with having been adopted, the falling out with the company he founded, the complicated personal relationships, and the final chapter where he saves the company that threw him out, only to die from a cancer that might have been cured had he acted on doctor’s advice. Gibney, though, eschews a strict chronology, focusing on what drove the man who changed how we relate to our technology, evincing from those who knew him personal recollections, and finding a wonderful irony in the simultaneous isolation and connectivity that his products brought us. Why, he wonders, did this man’s death provoke an outpouring of grief from those who knew him enough to not like him, and from those who never met him, but made them feel part of something special and elite?
The story is divided into roughly four sections that, because life refuses to be strictly pigeon-holed, overlap. Those are the personal, the professional, the spiritual, and the legal. His numerous trips to Japan blending his lifelong devotion to Zen and furthering his business interests there. Being a strict vegan in the United States, with ordering more eel sushi than he and his daughter can eat while visiting there. We never get to how Jobs himself felt about those contradictions, or if he even acknowledged them. If he ever wrote or recorded a confessional, we do not know about it. We do, however, hear from many of those closest to him, including the woman he abandoned when she became pregnant by him, who all speak of him with clarity, but with the same seemingly irreconcilable emotions of that ci-mentioned software engineer. And we hear from Jobs himself, in interview after interview, in presentation after presentation, talking about his vision with such conviction that it’s obvious why people were so swept up by him. Even after hearing about his ruthlessness that was both petty and ferocious, even after hearing about the hubris that delighted in being above not just the law, but above humanity itself, the charisma is undeniable. Hence there is no mystery about why his spiritual advisor could entertain the idea that Jobs had, indeed, attained enlightenment, but with the fatal flaw of not having overcome his ego, becoming trapped in what is termed a golden chain.
Perhaps asking for that perfect insight into Jobs is too much to ask of any book or film. The more interesting question he poses, and poses well, is why we need to create a hero of someone who no doubt changed the world, but who was more iconoclast that saint. The most memorable moment is a clip of Jobs recalling that he saw his first computer when he was 12, with its ancillary shock at being reminded of a time when that could be true for a 12-year-old. Then realizing that someone who was part of shifting the world’s paradigm was so empathy impaired that, after having amassed a personal fortune in the billions, he still thought donating money to charity was a waste of time. As one journalist put it, he wrote about the bad and the good of Jobs and of Apple, and no one wanted to hear about it. The hate mail was vitriolic, more intense and more voluminous than the reaction he got from any story on any other subject. This, then, is what is most valuable about Gibney’s film. For all the clips of a young Jobs being so nervous about one of his first television interviews that he asks where the bathroom is in case he get sick, or the poetic memories of his daughter Lisa, or the horrifyingly cold response to the suicides of the Chinese workers who work in the factories that manufacture the iPhone, the heart of STEVE JOBS: THE MAN IN THE MACHINE is what the public’s relationship to him says about each of us.